Category Archives: Gratitude

I want to live like Alex: A timely re-post for the New Year

The crowd crammed into pews until there was no elbow room. And then the crowd crammed in some more. When every inch of every pew was full, ushers scurried to bring extra chairs to the aisles, front to back.

An overflowing multi-faith, multi-generational, multi-cultural assembly gathered to celebrate the life of Alex McKeague, a man who lived 80-plus years to the fullest. “I’ve got to learn to live like Alex,” I thought.

If I dare.

It is not an easy road to extra chairs at your funeral.

To live like Alex, I would need to take action and not say, “I’m sure someone else will do it.”

To live like Alex, I would need to speak up for what is right, even when it is not the popular option.

To be truly alive like Alex, I would need to be the voice in the wilderness crying out for changes to make the world more compassionate, equitable, peaceful.

  • Alex founded the Carlington Chaplaincy in Ottawa to help feed and nurture residents of a challenged neighbourhood. He gave them more than food; he gave them potential.
  • Alex collected skates, tennis racquets, or hockey equipment for children in need. He gave them more than sports equipment; he gave them inclusion.
  • Alex rode his bike when he could, even during draining chemotherapy treatments. He gave us more than clean air; he gave us inspiration.

Alex tapped into some mysterious energy-force we would all love to find. Alex couldn’t coexist peacefully with injustices. He couldn’t overlook a need. He did more good work in a week than many people do in a year, or even a lifetime.

Sounds good. Sounds like what we all should be doing.

But most of us don’t. I don’t.

Most of us set up a wall of defensive excuses. I do.

I don’t have time today.
There are programs in place for that.
I’m afraid.
That person is getting what he deserves.

Alex took action to change things when sticking to the status quo would have been easier—the tempting, deliciously attractive, effortless, risk-free status quo. He bravely stepped in where others feared to tread.

And he had another gift. He could lay out the difficult truths to resistant audiences and achieve the miracle of illumination. When Alex spoke in his quiet way, his soft handling of the hard truths encouraged us to join his vision for a better, more just world. 

His quiet words held loud power.

Alex showed that deep, long-lasting happiness is a paradox. We think that to find happiness we need to focus on ourselves, and our emotional comforts, and material bonuses. We think happiness comes wrapped as a big screen TV. But the opposite is true.

Happiness doesn’t live in the mirror.

He turned his back on self-reflection and looked outward to fulfill the needs of others. He obtained a doctorate, but there was no “Call me Dr. McKeague” from him. He instructed his children not to make him “look like a big shot” at the funeral. He wanted the rewards of his actions to fall on those who needed the help, not on himself. It was okay with him that we all looked toward his causes, helping them, supporting them, only glancing back after he was gone to realize that he had been the foundation, the catalyst for so much good work.

Alex lived naturally to a standard that most of the rest of us find unnaturally difficult to achieve. It’s hard to get past fear and societal pressures.

What will people think? Obey the rules. Don’t rock the boat.

I’ll try. Because at Alex’s funeral I learned I want to live like Alex, so that when I die they will need lots of extra chairs.

This is a re-post from 2010. All these years later, I’m still trying . . .

lots of chairs
Photo by Daniel Ferreira Baltà

Bayberry candle luck: A Christmas ritual to warm the soul

“A bayberry candle burned to the socket puts luck in the home, food in the larder and gold in the pocket.”

bayberry-tapers

My mother-in-law burned a bayberry taper candle down to the socket every Christmas Day, to bring the family luck for the coming year.

We adopted the tradition in our house even though I learned that my mother-in-law’s version of the tradition differed from the original. According to online sources, the candles were lit on New Year’s Eve and the flame had to continue burning into New Year’s Day to carry the luck forward.

I thought about changing our tradition to align with the legend, but then dismissed the idea. Traditions are rituals, and rituals should warm the soul, revive memories of loved ones and centre us in what is really important.

If I were to light a bayberry candle on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas Day, it would feel all wrong.

So I’ll keep on lighting a bayberry candle on Christmas morning. When I do, it will warm my soul, it will remind me of my mother-in-law, and it will centre me in what is really important. 

And that, I suspect, will bring me more luck than anything. 

bayberry-nativity

Many brilliant lights: Paulo Coelho

During one Christmas Eve dinner with his wife, well-known author Paulo Coelho grumbled about something that was not perfect in his life. His thoughtful wife pointed out the beautifully illuminated Christmas tree nearby.

There was one burnt bulb among the brilliantly shining ones.

“It seems to me that instead of thinking of this year as dozens of enlightened blessings, you chose to look at the one light that did not glow,” she said.

What is the ratio of enlightened blessings to burnt bulbs in your life? 

This month, whether you enjoy Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the solstice, Festivus, or any other celebration, may you bask in the glow of so many enlightened blessings that you don’t notice any dark spots.

Read Paulo Coelho’s post here: My wife and the burnt light

If there are burnt bulbs on this tree, I can't see them.
If there are burnt bulbs on this tree, I can’t see them.

Carve your name on hearts

“Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.” 

—Charles H. Spurgeon

I first read this quote years ago in the email signature of one of my daughter’s teachers.

It reassured me to know that my daughter was spending some of her days with a person with that kind of mindfulness. He was wasn’t working for himself; he was working for the children. Every day he was carving his name on students’ hearts, so he’d better make it good.

Today, you will carve your name on someone’s heart. What indelible impression will you leave?

Child's drawing where a mother and daughter make up one side of a heart.
When she was a child my daughter drew this picture of us. We’re carved into her heart together.

Roots Part III: Where we come from

There’s something primal about the word roots. We feel it at our core.

Deep roots allow trees to stand tall, and they nourish the plant. Kind of like family. One hopes.

My roots are deep in the Ottawa Valley, in a farming community and a large extended family. No matter how old I get or where I live, the phrases “Ottawa Valley” and “farm” will always be central to my being.

Even as a child I was nosy. Here I am in our old farmhouse, listening in on the party line.

If I dig deeper, I get to “Irish,” “English,” and “Christian.” Yes, I am a WASP—a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant with all the privileges that come along with it. My parents raised me in faith and, even though it has evolved significantly over my lifetime, that rooting in faith still keeps me grounded.

What about people who aren’t so lucky?

When trees are rooted in rocky-ground, it’s difficult to stay standing.

There’s something primal about the word roots. We feel it—or the need of it—at our core.

Are you feeling well grounded?

Bam! Gratitude lessons from a child

It is Thanksgiving in Canada today, so I thought I would re-share one of my favourite posts from my previous blog site. I’ll be back with a new post tomorrow.

The child in this story has grown up and no longer gives me my Monday smile, but I’ll remember him forever.


Monday evening is the regular library time for a father and a small boy. Those two are the highlight of my week.

At the time of their visit, I work in the room that houses the book-drop. The murmur of their voices and the scraping sound of a step-stool being pulled into position comes to me through the slot. The child’s feet climb up one step on the stool and  another as he prepares for his book return ritual.

“Thank you, book. Good-bye,” he says to the first book. He pushes it through the slot. “Bam!” he shouts.

He performs this small ceremony for every book. He returns 10 to 15 books, on average, so his process takes some time. If there are people waiting behind him, he doesn’t adjust his pace; he savours his moment.

I stop whatever I’m doing and savour his moment too. I smile widely.

This child shows me:

  1. He respects and cherishes books.
  2. He expresses gratitude.
  3. He knows how to “be here now.”
  4. He celebrates each moment with a Bam!

Some lessons for all of us, from a child.

Bam!

I’m grateful for these two wonderful children’s books.

Predictable novelty: Why we love fall

I am away on a short vacation – enjoying fall. While I’m travelling, I’m re-posting some content from my previous blog site. Enjoy.

maple-leaf

I love this time of year, when the Earth’s spin and the tilt of the planet carries us into cooler temperatures, shorter days and colourful leaves. And wool socks. And the smoky aroma of logs burning the fireplace. And cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves.

The cooler weather rejuvenates people. The shorter days give us more time to read. Pumpkin Spice Lattes warm chilled hands. (My daughter works at Starbucks, and she spends much of her time these days preparing Pumpkin Spice Lattes. People love them.)

Most of us love these things without understanding why, but scientists have theories about our affinity for fall. Catherine Franssen wrote about it on Huff Post Science.

According to Franssen, we like “predictable novelty.” In other words, fall gives us the two things we crave all in one package: change and stability. It brings change that doesn’t make us anxious, because we know it’s coming. We also associate fall with pleasurable things, like pumpkin pie and walks in fallen leaves. Those pleasurable memories trigger neurotransmitters.

“The neuroscience behind that love is the trifecta of pleasurable neurotransmitters fired: dopamine (pleasure), serotonin (contentment) and norepinephrine (alertness). When all three are going at once, you’re in a heightened state of awareness in a really good way.” —Catherine Franssen

Apparently, many of us float through autumn high on dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine—not to mention cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves—as we eagerly anticipate football victories, Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas parties.

Sounds good to me. I think I’ll have a latte . . .